Happy Birthday to The Sims!
Imagine if you will living in a house, waking up to shower, eating food and going to work, so that you can continue to live in a house, shower and eat. Your only respite from this horror-filled daily routine is watching TV, reading books, or arranging social events with friends.
Sounds impossible right? Well thank heavens for real-life simulator The Sims, where you can recreate the blistering joy of managing a household budget and ignoring the neighbours when they pop round for a chat.
Ok, so I have turned the sarcasm dial up to 11 here, because if you tried to explain The Sims to someone who’s been living in a cave for the past 20 years, you realise just how bonkers it is. Who in their right mind would choose to relax from the trials and tribulations of everyday life by paying bills, putting out kitchen fires, and instructing a tiny warbling creature to go to the toilet and not pee all over the floor? Parents that’s who! Or maybe masochists.
And yet the appeal of The Sims is undeniable. It’s something of a gaming institution, and as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, I try and dig a little deeper into why it’s so successful.
Over the last two decades there have only been four, yes four, Sims games. It might feel like there have been hundreds more, and that’s because there have been over 75 add-ons and packs. These range from the sublime University and Pets packs, to the ridiculous. Yes I’m looking at you Katy Perry’s Sweet Treats Pack!!
Feeling a strong bout of nostalgia sickness, I began to think about my days as a bright-eyed and optimistic teenager absolutely obsessed with The Sims when it came out in 2000. When I first played it I did it honestly and without cheats. I may also have been one of the few teenagers who didn’t desperately try to spin the camera and catch a glimpse of shower based nudity. Ok maybe once, damn you pixelation!
At the time I was at college studying creative writing and in the throes of writing a sitcom. Obviously it never took off, not even as a Netflix special, but I used to try and play out my sitcom in the Sims suburbia to see what would happen.
Now I’m not sure whether this speaks volumes about The Sims or me a 16 year old, but no matter how carefully constructed the house, how delightfully affable the inhabitants, and how carefully I monitored social interactions, things always, ALWAYS descended into fist-fights, fires and any unfortunate children being whisked away by social services! I’d basically created the Sim equivalent of Shameless.
Then I found the “klapaucius” money cheat, and with great financial power comes… well pretty much anything you want to be honest! I never did the standard brick Sims into the walls, or remove ladders from swimming pools, as that was far too pedestrian for me. Instead, with my infinite wealth I conducted “social experiments”. My favourite was a Lord of the Flies style mansion populated entirely by children, where the rooms ranged from bargain basement to baller.
I won’t lie, I was hoping for a Hunger Games style meltdown with fires, fights and some sort of revolution as the children aged. Instead, because children don’t have the cooking skill, they ignored the selection of obscenely priced ovens and lived off ham and cheese sandwiches. They were all also insanely nice and polite to each other and still went to school!
And so eventually my love of The Sims eventually dwindled. The money cheat effectively removed the need to be strategic, and even the thrill of architectural freedom lost its lure. I did try to go back to the “vanilla” way of playing, but once you’ve experienced extreme wealth it’s hard to go back to slumming it.
I never played The Sims 2 or 3 or the multitude of add-ons and packs, but the 20th anniversary celebrations piqued my intrigue once more. So I found myself entering the cheery and faintly Stepford Wives suburbs of SimNation for one last blast, and to try my hand at creating a perfect little neighbourhood.
It’s obvious that over the years, like many a recognised celebrity there’s been a bit of plastic surgery here and there. The slight polygonal features and limbs of the first Sims have been smoothed out, and the cold, dead eyes have a more playful cartoonish energy. The colours are bright and vivid, and while some of the fashion and interior décor choices could still be described as questionable, it’s a much prettier game.
Almost immediately I found that the main pull for me was the building. For those of us old enough to have played the first game, The Sims 4 may well be the closest we get to actually owning a house!
Riding on the trend for micro/sustainable living, the latest pack to hit the shelves is The Sims 4: Tiny Living Stuff Pack. This came out on PC and Mac in January 21, and hit PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on February 4th.
The purpose of this pack? To build a tiny home on a greatly reduced footprint of 100 tiles or smaller and receive special bonuses for your Sims. This to me is a curious development as The Sims was originally designed as an architecture simulator. It was only during development of the game that it was decided that the Sims, who were there to evaluate the houses once built, were more interesting and their limited role was increased.
This new pack feels like a shift back to being an architectural simulator, and a bit of a gimmick like many of the other packs, but it also started to make me realise why this game is as successful as it is.
The Sims is an enormous sandbox, but it’s also a very pure form of wish fulfilment. If you want to build a repulsively opulent mansion with a million lawn flamingos, be my guest! Have aspirations to be a Lothario Astronaut? Then reach for those sexy stars! Want to create a Saw style death maze made entirely out of swimming pools, extremely high walls and no ladders or doors? Well EA might put you on a watchlist but ok!
There have also been more attempts to highlight actual gameplay outside of architectural whimsy and mild Sim-based torture. Sims have aspirations and tasks to complete which makes it feel more like other simulator games like Tropico or Two Point Hospital, but there’s still no real right or wrong way to play it. There are obvious failure states like getting fired from your job or death, but it all depends if you’re about pimping your crib or being a slave to the chaos.
For some players this complete lack of structure can be overwhelming, with no real end in sight or conclusion. For others it’s heaven on a stick.
For me, it was fun while it lasted, but now I return to explosions and hitting things with swords!